The brain is the most complex organ in the body. One cannot begin to understand autism without understanding the way the brain develops and the role it plays in leaning. My goal is to be as concise as I possibly can be to keep it simple.
The brain is a little under 3 pounds (think of a grapefruit that can fit in the palm of your hand). It is made of thousands and thousands of miles of blood vessels that process sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and touch. It is divided into two hemispheres (left and right). The left hemisphere deals with language and math, while the right hemisphere deals with movement and vision. Both hemispheres work together so we can function. Information comes to the brain through the five senses.
Each part of the brain plays a specific role in the way it collects information, transfers, and processes it. To get a better idea of how complex and busy the brain is, compare it to a train station with its winding corridors and multiple tracks, each taking different routes to different destinations.
OK, buckle up a little longer while we take a peek into its anatomy and try to get a better understanding of how it works. First, the brain and the spinal cord together form the Central Nervous System, which is made of billions of neurons. The role of the spinal cord is to carry messages from the brain to the rest of the body. The role of the Central Nervous System, on the other hand, is to collect, transfer and process the information it receives from the five senses (seeing, smelling, touching, hearing, and tasting) which happens at an incredible rate. It is interesting to know that neurons collect more information in one day than a computer collects in a year (Sousa, 2011).
The development of the brain starts the moment the child is conceived. It continues to grow in the womb and to reorganize itself after birth. It when they begin to connect one with another at the breathtaking rate of a thousand connections virtually every second. These connections between neurons are what make learning possible. However, these connections between neurons only strengthen with use or practice and weaken when they are not used. “We have all learned the adage if you don’t use it you lose it.” And, we have all experienced losing skills we did not use over time and having to relearn them all over again.
A Closer Look at the Brain
As Neurons continue to develop after birth, they reach an astonishing number of 200 billion, mostly during the first 3 months of life. Interestingly, by age 3, each neuron has developed at least 15, 000 connections with other neurons (Sousa, 2011). These connections are far greater in a young child than they are in the adult brain. Shockingly, a 2-year old has twice the amount of neurons an adult has which explains why children learn so much faster than adults do. A child learns the letters of the alphabet, numbers, colors, shapes, language, etc. at an amazing pace. The richer the environment, the more the brain is stimulated, the more connections are created, and the more a child learns.
However, on the flip side, sadly, the brain does not keep what it does not need. Only the connections that are created and used become permanent. Connections that are not used before age 21 naturally disappear (Broderick, Blewitt, 2006). Let’s use language to illustrate the phenomenon of the elimination of neurons that are not used.
You probably did not know that at the time of birth, the brain is language-ready, right? Well, it is true, we actually are born with the natural ability to speak all the languages that are spoken in the world. However, because we are only exposed to the language that is spoken at home, we only learn to speak that language fluently because this is the only language neurons develop and consolidate. All other language-ready connections are naturally eliminated naturally because they are not used. Ironically, we spent agonizing moments later in life when having to learn a foreign language when we were wired naturally to speak fluently at birth.
Stay tuned for yet a closer look at the brain in our next blog.